Against a background of declining television audiences, the World Cup is predictably drawing high ratings and record numbers of online viewers. It seems that nothing unites a nation like watching England lose to Belgium in a strategic game that neither side seemed to want to win.
The England game against Belgium, which was shown by ITV in the United Kingdom, had a peak of 18.6 million viewers, which was a 72% share of the television audience at the time, or over a quarter of the country. The average audience was 13 million, which was a 62% share of the audience. The match had 2.2 million online requests on ITV Hub, the highest it has had so far for live programming.
The BBC has also been boasting about its audience numbers. BBC coverage of the England match against Tunisia had a peak audience of 18.3 million, with an average audience of 13.7 million, and a total of 3.22 million online streaming requests.
The England versus Panama game had a peak audience of 14.1 million, with an average audience of 12.8 million and 3.13 million online streaming requests.
So far there have been over 40 million online video requests related to the BBC group stage matches across the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport web site.
Matthew Postgate, the chief technology and product officer for the BBC said: “Alongside the BBC’s world-class TV and Radio coverage, record numbers of fans are using our digital services to follow the World Cup. Millions are watching the big matches on their connected TV at home, while millions more are sneaking a peak on their work laptop or cramming in some games on their commute.”
The BBC has not commented on how many watched its online streams in Ultra HD. It may suffice to say that it was probably not that many people. Millions may be watching on their connected televisions but the vast majority are watching broadcast television.
The numbers watching online still show the demand for viewing matches when away from the living room screen.
Official audience figures are based on the measurement of a panel of homes and do not take into account viewing in other places like bars. The number of requests for online viewing reflects total views, rather than the average number of viewers over the programme.
The online requests for World Cup coverage will overtake drama programmes that are typically the most requested genre on the BBC iPlayer. The top programme in April was an Agatha Christie drama, which received 1.96 million requests for its opening episode.
However, the most requested programme on the BBC iPlayer in 2017 was an episode of the nature series Blue Planet II, which received 4.77 million requests. It remains to be seen whether the World Cup will exceed that.
In recent years, the highest World Cup television audience in the United Kingdom was when 17.5 million watched England lose 4-1 to Germany on the BBC in 2010.
Depending on how England progress, with Germany now out of the tournament, British broadcasters may yet see a return to audiences of 20 million, boosted by online viewers.
The largest ever audience in the United Kingdom for a World Cup match was in 1990, when 25.2 million watched the England semi-final with West Germany. Coverage was shared between the BBC and ITV, with 16.7 million watching on the BBC and 8.5 million watching on ITV.
Football manages to bring together a national television audience like nothing else, while viewing numbers are generally in decline.
The average audience for BBC One on Saturday in prime time in the first half of 2018 was the lowest for 16 years.
Troy, a £16 million historical epic co-produced with Netflix, drew an average audience of just 2.3 million viewers. Even a regular like the hospital drama series Casualty was down to an average audience of 4.7 million.
Poldark, shown on Sunday evenings, managed 6.1 million viewers, but otherwise, apart from the World Cup, audiences on BBC One are a fraction of what they once were.